The Odyssey

The Odyssey Study Guide

Most likely written between 750 and 650 B.C., The Odyssey is an epic poem about the wanderings of the Greek hero Odysseus following his victory in the Trojan War (which, if it did indeed take place, occurred in the 12th-century B.C. in Mycenaean Greece). Originally composed in the Ionic Greek dialect in dactylic hexameter (most English translations use iambic pentameter), The Odyssey, alongside the slightly earlier Iliad (a violent retelling of the Trojan War), ushered in a new age of Western literature. The Odyssey has been so influential that its primary theme‹the desire for home‹may be the most important one in modern narratives, used for stories as diverse as The Wizard of Oz and James Joyce's directly allusive Ulysses. The Odyssey is also notable for its exploration of its hero's sensitive interior life, a stark contrast to the nonstop action of The Iliad.

There has been fervent debate, especially since the 19th century, over the authorship of both poems. Some scholars maintain that they are the work of multiple writers, while others believe that both are the product of a blind bard named Homer. It is now generally agreed that a singer-poet named Homer from the city of Smyrna on the western coast of Asia Minor did exist around the time of the composition of both poems, though the rest is still disputable. One likely theory is that the illiterate Homer had memorized heroic stories that had been passed down through the ages and altered them slightly when he sang them to audiences and strummed a simple stringed instrument for musical accompaniment. Someone else then cobbled together Homer's various narratives and wrote down first The Iliad, then The Odyssey, most likely on a papyrus scroll. The stories were then copied, and undoubtedly evolved, over time, helping explain particularly the uneven final third of The Odyssey.

To buy them time between improvisations, the singer-poets repeated stories (such as that of Agamemnon's murder in The Odyssey) and used recurring epithets‹pithy tags attached to characters ("grey-eyed Athena," "swift-footed Achilles")‹and epic (or Homeric) similes, or repetitive poetic comparisons ("rosy-fingered Dawn," "the wine-dark sea"). It is important to remember that The Iliad and The Odyssey were originally oral entertainment, and that much of the pleasure for the ancient Greeks came not from the narratives‹with which they were familiar‹but from the sound of the poetry, which is still unmatched in the epic poetic tradition for its beauty and grandeur.